The 1967 Purge of the Gapsan Faction and Establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System

By
James Person

NKIDP e-Dossier no. 15
The 1967 Purge of the Gapsan Faction and Establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System

Introduced by James F. Person

The December 2013 purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek came four months after the ruling Korean Worker’s Party announced that the Ten Points (gonghwaguk 10 daejeonggang) of the Monolithic Ideological System (yuilsasang chegye), the basic tenets of the unitary leadership system in North Korea, had been updated for the new leader, Kim Jong Un. This reveals the lasting importance of the absolutist institution that was established in the wake of the last major purge of alleged factionalists in 1967. Indeed, following Jang’s purge, North Korea’s state media has published a series of articles and editorials stressing Kim Jong Un’s absolute power, exhorting all to “conscientiously uphold” the young leader’s ideology and policy line. The Rodong Sinmun published sheet music to a new propaganda song entitled “We Don’t Know Anything But You,” with lyrics that go “Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we don’t know anything but you.” The purge of Jang Song Thaek, who was often described as the No. 2 in North Korea, or as a regent to Kim Jong Un, and the subsequent media campaign appear to be aimed at solidifying Kim’s power base and re-establishing the unitary leadership in North Korea under the Monolithic Ideological System. The message to the North Korean people and to aspiring cadres is clear: in the absolutist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), there is no No. 2.

This collection of newly obtained and translated Romanian and East German documents sheds new light on the purge of the so-called Gapsan faction and establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System in 1967 by North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung. Following a series of prolonged debates over development strategies (1953-1956 and 1966-1967) that the senior Kim perceived as threats to his national security imperatives, he set out to eliminate pluralism in the ruling Korean Worker’s Party and make the word of the sovereign absolute.

Events leading to the establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System started in the wake of the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) Second Conference in October 1966. At a time when North Korea was faced with tremendous security challenges, particularly from the radical Cultural Revolution threatening to spill over its 1,300 kilometer border with China, several senior members of the KWP Central Committee (CC) began to challenge policies advanced by Kim Il Sung, particularly the Byungjin line (launched in December 1962), which called for the simultaneous development of heavy industry and national defense, the promotion of certain individuals to the KWP CC, and the expansion of Kim’s cult of personality. These critics included Pak Geumcheol, the fourth ranking member of the KWP CC’s Political Committee (though arguably the second most important); Ri Hyosoon, the fifth ranking member of the KWP CC Political Committee in charge of the South Korean liaison bureau; Kim Doman, Secretary of the Central Committee and Head of the Propaganda Section of the Central Committee; and others, including Ko Hyeok, chairman of the culture and arts section of the CC as well as Vice Premier. These officials had rich anti-colonial backgrounds, though none of them were actually military men. Instead, they served in the Gapsan Operations Committee, an underground organization for national liberation formed in in the mid-1930s that provided logistical and intelligence support to anti-Japanese partisans, in particular to Kim Il Sung.

Pak and his associates advocated for more investment in light industry and the production of consumer goods to elevate standards of living in the DPRK. To be sure, this was a very sensitive subject. After nearly fifteen years of ambitious back-to-back economic plans and near constant mobilization, the DPRK was transformed from a country that was devastated by the Korean War to one that was moderately industrialized. It remained far more developed than South Korea until the early 1970s. However, the North Korean people still did not enjoy a quality of life commensurate to the labor they had invested in recovery and industrialization. While there had been plans to focus on improving the living standards of the North Korean people at the start of the Seven-Year Plan, those plans were largely scrapped after the 1961 military coup in South Korea. In a form of economic populism, Pak Geumcheol and others gave voice to the frustrations of the North Korean people by suggesting that it was finally time to focus on elevating living standards in the DPRK.

Connected to Pak Geumcheol’s efforts to position himself as the champion of the North Korean masses was his criticism of the expanding cult of personality surrounding Kim Il Sung. Indeed, this may have been the real source of Pak’s grievances with the KWP leadership. At the heart of his criticism, one might surmise, was frustration over two things. First, with the cult of personality, everyone but Kim Il Sung was being written out of the history of the anti-colonial struggle. This must have greatly frustrated Pak, who had spent many years in prison after being captured by the Japanese in connection with his efforts to support Kim Il Sung and his comrades-in-arms. This was a position shared by observers in the diplomatic community with some familiarity of the history of Korea’s partisan movement. In a conversation with his Romanian colleague in Pyongyang, the charge d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy exclaimed that “it is perfectly reasonable for Pak Geumcheol, the only leader from the current structure who during the harshest years of anti-Japanese fighting operated and endured with great heroism inside Korea, not to accept that all the credit for the revolutionary and socialist construction in the DPRK goes to Kim Il Sung, who spent the entire period of the revolution in China and in the Soviet Union, in much milder conditions.”[1] Second was the elevation of the North Korean leader’s younger brother Kim Yeongjoo to the position of secretary of the powerful organizational department, which suggested that he was being groomed as a successor to Kim Il Sung. Yet, Kim Yeongjoo’s revolutionary credentials were questionable, to say the least. While his elder brother led a partisan division before fleeing to the Soviet Union in the early 1940s, the junior Kim, who was never a partisan, lived a quiet and serene life in Manchuria. Pak considered himself to be a much more qualified successor. 

Pak Geumcheol, Ri Hyosoon, and Kim Doman, who was in charge of the KWP CC Propaganda Section, were well-positioned to take measures to both diminish the cult of personality and to elevate Pak as a rival to Kim Yeongjoo for the succession of the leadership. In the wake of the October 1966 Second Party Conference of the Korean Worker’s Party therefore, the three took steps to reduce the cult of personality. According to contemporary diplomatic sources, their efforts worked. Romanian diplomats reported that after the conference, Kim Il Sung’s cult had noticeably diminished.[2] The available documentary evidence does not shed light on the tactics used by Pak Geumcheol, Ri Hyosoon, and Kim Doman to reduce the cult of Kim Il Sung in the wake of the conference. More evidence exists on the measures Pak took to enshrine his own place in North Korean history, and possibly to even position himself as a rival candidate to Kim Yeongjoo as future leader of the DPRK. As chief of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kim Doman led efforts to create a cult of personality surrounding Pak Geumcheol. He reportedly commissioned a director to make a film, “An Act of Sincerity” (Ilpyeon dansim), celebrating the colonial-era activities of Pak and his wife.[3] Also, in a manner similar to Kim Il Sung, Pak’s supporters started quoting from him in speeches and in conversations, referring to Pak’s “teachings” or gyosi. Kim Doman also had the birthplace of Pak Geumcheol rebuilt, just as Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, Mangyeongdae, had been rebuilt and preserved.[4] There is little doubt that Kim Il Sung would have perceived these actions as a challenge to his authority.[5]

In March 1967, Kim Il Sung delivered a speech entitled “On Improving Party Work and Implementing the Decisions of the Party Conference” in which he warned Pak and his colleagues against engaging in activities of “individual heroism.” This warning came within the context of one of Kim’s earliest appeals to enshrine Juche Thought, the North Korean political ideology of self-reliance, and establish a Monolithic Ideological System (yuil sasang chaegye) in North Korea. With the international communist movement hopelessly divided between “right-revisionism” and “left-opportunism,” Kim sought to firmly enshrine what he considered North Korea’s own unique revolutionary world outlook, based on Juche Thought. Unless this system was fully established, Kim warned, “it is not possible to ensure the unity of ideology and will.”[6] Moreover, the establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System was necessary to ensure that the Party would be turned into a “militant organization” that would be capable of “lead[ing] the revolution and construction with success.” After discussing past episodes of disunity in the Korean Worker’s Party’s history at a time when “Juche was not firmly established,” he criticized Pak Geumcheol, though not by name, for his recent actions (including the reconstruction of his birthplace), describing them as “wrong practices which do not follow the Party’s monolithic ideological system.”[7] Kim Il Sung placed great emphasis in his speech on accepting the orders of the Party and the leader unconditionally.  

Given the context of Pak Geumcheol’s criticism over the Byungjin line, Kim Il Sung’s speech was an attack on pluralism in the Party. The Monolithic Ideological System, therefore, would suppress policy debates within the KWP, particularly when Kim Il Sung believed the alternative—reducing expenditures on national defense as suggested by Pak Geumcheol and his associates—would have left the country in a weakened and dependent position at a time of great international peril. The experiences of similar debates over post-war development strategies inside the Party from 1953-1956 likely reinforced Kim Il Sung’s desire to eliminate debate so that he could carry out the policies he considered necessary for the greater good of the country.  

It was only a matter of time before Pak Geumcheol, Ri Hyosoon, Kim Doman, and others were purged. According to diplomatic reports, they stopped making public appearances in April.[8] They were not officially purged from the Party until May, during the Fifteenth Plenum of the Fourth KWP CC. Labeled the “Anti-Party Anti-Revolutionary Factional Element” (pan dang pan hyeongmyeong jongpa bunja), Pak was sent to a rural factory to work, while the others, including Ri Hyosoon, Kim Doman, and Ko Hyeok, were charged with crimes such as thwarting the revolutionary movement in South Korea.[9]

The diplomatic record of North Korea’s former allies from this period contain reports of several meetings between officials of various embassies, some of which are included in this collection, all grasping for straws as they tried to comprehend how two members of the KWP CC Political Council, especially one so close to Kim Il Sung, could have been charged with anti-Party activities. In a meeting among Romanian and Hungarian diplomats in Pyongyang, the Hungarian diplomat reported, with great frustration, “the North Koreans avoid directly answering any questions about the reasons for the purge of these officials. They only say that while they can tolerate deviations from the party line, they can’t tolerate a lack of respect for the leader - Kim Il Sung.”[10]

The Monolithic Ideological System based on the dictatorship of Kim Il Sung and the centrality of Juche as the unitary ideology was fully explicated by Kim Il Sung in a speech he delivered to the Supreme People’s Assembly on December 16, 1967 speech entitled “Let Us Embody the Revolutionary Spirit of Independence, Self-Sustenance, and Self-Defense More Thoroughly in all Branches of State Activity.” In the speech, he presented the ten-point platform (gonghwaguk 10 daejeonggang) for establishing the monolithic ideological system in North Korea. This required applying the principles of Juche to all fields of governance, including politics, economics, and national defense, and also national reunification, international trade, science and technology, and international affairs, and absolute loyalty to Kim himself. The Ten Points of the Monolithic Ideological System mandated ideological purity, making the word of the sovereign, i.e. Kim Il Sung, absolute.

Since 1967, North Korea has been a unitary system, where there is, for all intents and purposes, no No. 2. The authority of Kim Il Sung, and later of his son Kim Jong Il, was unassailable. In 1974, the ten points of the Monolithic Ideological System were updated when Kim Jong Il was anointed, at least internally, as successor. Once Kim Jong Il was designated successor, he co-ruled with his father, Kim Il Sung, as a single leadership unit. This was done under an updated and expanded ten principles of the monolithic ideological system. The ten points were in fact updated by Kim Jong Il himself, with the help of party ideologue and future defector to South Korea, Hwang Jangyeop. The updated ten points advanced the cult of Kim Il Sung (and further extended it to co-ruler Kim Jong Il). The ten points also established more control over every aspect of life as each point was sub-divided, glorifying and demanding absolute loyalty to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Every member of society was expected to memorize and live by these rules. The 2013 updates to the Ten Points, which went largely unnoticed in Western media, reinforce the principles of the unitary leadership system under Kim Jong Un. While we do not yet have a firm grasp on power dynamics in the Kim Jong Un regime, the timing of the update to the Ten Points, along with the recent media campaign extolling the virtues of loyalty to the leader, suggest that the purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek should be analyzed primarily in the context of efforts to solidify the unitary leadership of Kim Jong Un. 

James F. Person is the Senior Program Associate for the History and Public Policy Program and coordinator of the North Korea International Documentation Project. Person is co-editor of the NKIDP Working Paper Series and the History and Public Policy Program Critical Oral History Conference Series and has worked as a consultant on historical documentaries. He received his Ph.D. in Modern Korean History from The George Washington University.


[3] Jae-Cheon Lim, Kim Jong Il’s Leadership of North Korea (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 39.

[4] Kim Il Sung, Works 21, January-December 1967 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1985), pp. 118-119. Jae-Cheon Lim also writes about Pak’s teachings being repeated.  Jae-Cheon Lim, Kim Jong Il’s Leadership of North Korea, p. 39.

[5] Jae-Cheon Lim, Kim Jong Il’s Leadership of North Korea, p. 39.

[6] Kim Il Sung, Works 21, January-December 1967 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1985), p. 116.

[7] Ibid., 118-119.

***


DOCUMENT LIST

(click document title to be redirected to the Wilson Center Digital Archive)

DOCUMENT NO. 1
Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No. 76.203, TOP SECRET, 13 June 1967

[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116707.]

DOCUMENT NO. 2
Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No. 76.208, TOP SECRET, 15 June 1967

[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116708.]

DOCUMENT NO. 3
Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.247, 28 July 1967

[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116710.]

DOCUMENT NO. 4
Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, TOP SECRET, No. 76.276, 30 July 1967
[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116712.]

DOCUMENT NO. 5
Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No. 76.279, TOP SECRET, 3 August 1967

[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Eliza Gheorghe. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116713.]

DOCUMENT NO. 6
Information about the Central Committee Plenum of the Korean Workers Party between 28 June and 3 July 1967, 4 August 1967
[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAPMO-BA, Berlin, DY 30, IV A2/20/251. Translated for NKIDP by Bernd Schaefer.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111824.] 

DOCUMENT NO. 7
Report from the East German Embassy to North Korea, Plenum of the North Korean Workers' Party on 18 July 1967, 14 August 1967
[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SAPMO-BA, Berlin. Translated for NKIDP by Bernd Schaefer.
http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111827.] 

DOCUMENT NO. 8
Information about Some New Aspects on Korean Workers' Party Positions concerning Issues of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 18 August 1967
[Source: History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PolA AA, MfAA, C 153/75. Translated for NKIDP by Bernd Schaefer. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111828.]